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© 2006 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
The Old School, Brewhouse Hill, Wheathampstead,
Hertfordshire AL4 8AN, UK
Animal Welfare 2006, 15: 263-276
ISSN 0962-7286
The welfare and suitability of parrots as companion animals: a review
M Engebretson
Animal Protection Institute, 1122 S Street, Sacramento, CA 95814, USA; email: monica@api4animals.org
Abstract
In recent years there has been an increased interest in studies related to the welfare of avian species commonly kept as companion
animals, specifically those in the order Psittaciformes, commonly referred to as ‘parrots’. During this time the biology and behaviour
of wild parrots has also become better understood, aiding the assessment of welfare in captive environments. The impact of the pet
trade on wild parrot populations has also become clear. This order now has more globally threatened species than almost any other
major group of birds. Many significant aspects of parrot behaviour in the wild, such as flocking, social interaction with conspecifics,
foraging on a variety of foods and flight, are denied to varying degrees to parrots kept as companion animals. Captive parrots show
high levels of stereotypy, suggesting poor welfare. Welfare may be improved by appropriate environmental enrichment and changes
in the social environment of captive parrots kept as companion animals; however, such changes require that caretakers have suffi-
cient knowledge, resources and motivation to accommodate such conditions. The concept of companion animal suitability is an
important consideration when developing regulations or policy aimed at improving the welfare of animals kept as companions.
Although individual exceptions exist and the level of suitability may vary depending on species, in general, their presence in the pet
trade has resulted in serious animal welfare and conservation challenges for parrots, indicating that these animals may be unsuitable
as human companions.
Keywords: animal welfare, captive parrots, captive wildlife, companion animals, pet ownership, pet trade
Introduction
Although an accurate estimate of the total number of pet
birds in the US is impossible to determine because the
numbers vary wildly from source to source, it is generally
accepted that birds (including parrots, finches and canaries)
are the fourth most popular companion animal after fish,
cats and dogs, respectively (Kid & Kid 1998; Meyers 1998).
Unlike cats and dogs, birds are not typically considered
domesticated animals even when bred in captivity. This is
due in part to the fact that many bird species produced for
the pet trade are only one or two generations removed from
the wild and, as such, retain most if not all of their wild
instincts and behaviours (Davis 1998; Graham 1998). In
addition, many bird species that are bred and traded as
companion animals also remain physically indistinguish-
able from their wild counterparts, with the few exceptions
of those birds which have been hybridised or selectively
bred to express colour mutations.
Parrots are a well-defined group of birds that are so distinc-
tive (small to medium sized with stout, hooked bills and a
moveable upper mandible) that their affinities to other bird
taxonomies remain unclear (Gill 1990). Species within the
parrot family range in size from the relatively small
budgerigars, cockatiels and lovebirds, and medium-sized
conures, amazons and African greys to large-sized
cockatoos and macaws. Due in part to their popularity as
pets, the parrot family also contains a greater proportion of
threatened and endangered species than any other large
family of birds (Gill 1990).
Some people believe that it is wrong to keep parrots as pets
out of concern that birds suffer from being deprived of their
freedom and ability to express natural behaviour such as
flight (Kid & Kid 1998), whereas others disagree, citing the
human benefits of bird companionship (Voren 1995; Kid &
Kid 1998) and protection from environmental hazards as
justification for keeping parrots as pets (Desborough 1994).
Some are concerned that the pet trade threatens the species
in the wild or that escaped pet parrots could pose a threat to
native birds either through disease transmission or resource
competition (Jackson 2003). However, some believe that
the captive breeding and private possession of parrots for
pet purposes serve to conserve wild species (Desborough
1996; Kid & Kid 1998). All parties in the debate arrive at
different opinions on the same issue by evaluating various
sets of criteria, placing different degrees of importance on
each criterion and perhaps having varying levels of
knowledge about relevant animal welfare and conservation
issues.
Universities Federation for Animal Welfare Science in the Service of Animal Welfare
264 Engebretson
Review approach
Schuppli and Fraser (2000) developed a systematic analysis
to evaluate the suitability of different species as companion
animals based on a wide range of issues, such as those
described above that are relevant to such an assessment.
Their analysis considered three main criteria: the welfare of
the animal, the welfare of others (including humans and
other animals) and the welfare of the environment. This
paper will review the current literature on the welfare of
captive birds and utilise the framework described by
Schuppli and Fraser (2000) to assess the suitability of
parrots as companion animals.
Welfare of the animal
The examination of animal welfare is a useful tool in deter-
mining the suitability of keeping a particular species as a
companion animal. This is because welfare describes the
state of an animal at a specific time and can be ‘good’ or
‘poor’ regardless of what people think about the morality of
using such animals in a particular way.
The ‘five freedoms’ of the Farm Animal Welfare Council
(1992) have been used to evaluate animal welfare for many
species and are used as part of the Schuppli and Fraser
(2000) criteria for determining companion animal suit-
ability. These freedoms are: (1) freedom from hunger, thirst
and malnutrition; (2) freedom from disease and injury;
(3) freedom from physical and thermal discomfort;
(4) freedom from fear, distress and other negative psycho-
logical states and (5) freedom to carry out most normal
forms of behaviour. Although many of these freedoms are
inter-related — for example, deprivation of the freedom to
express normal forms of behaviour may cause a negative
psychological state that results in physical injury — I will
attempt to evaluate each freedom individually with the
exception of the last two freedoms (4 and 5) which will be
discussed together.
Freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition
This first freedom is further defined as the animal having
“ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full
health and vigour” (Farm Animal Welfare Council 1992).
Common captive parrot caging environments provide ample
access to both food and water so it would appear that in
most cases the first freedom is met. However, as Schuppli
and Fraser (2000) have pointed out, the nutritional require-
ments of the species must be adequately known and suitable
foods must be available to the owner in order to assure “full
health and vigour”.
It has been estimated that malnutrition is responsible for up
to 90% of all clinical conditions seen by avian practitioners
(Harrison 1998). It is well recognised among avian profes-
sionals that seed diets lack nutrients and are high in fat;
however, seed diets remain the most widely available and
most commonly fed pet bird diet (Harrison 1998; Reid &
Perlberg 1998).
Although a number of high-quality formulated diets are
available in the form of pellets, dietary standards are rela-
tively non-existent and it is unlikely that detailed nutritional
requirements will ever be documented for all the various
species of birds kept as pets (Harrison 1998; Reid &
Perlberg 1998). Despite this, many labels give the impres-
sion that the diet is complete when in fact the food contains
only minimum requirements, which may not provide suffi-
cient nutrition for some birds. Further complicating matters,
many avian professionals recommend that birds not be fed
a pellet-only diet and that formulated pellet diets be supple-
mented with fresh fruit and vegetables to ensure optimal
nutrition and health (Reid & Perlberg 1998). Many nutri-
tional problems diagnosed in birds seem to arise from
confusion on the part of the caretaker over conflicting infor-
mation for achieving balanced nutrition (Donoghue 1997).
Freedom from disease and injury
The existence of adequate veterinary knowledge and avail-
ability is necessary for the fulfilment of this freedom.
During the past 20 years research by avian practitioners and
academics and the skills of avian veterinarians have
improved considerably. Speciality avian practices have
tailored diagnostic tests, emergency medical procedures and
anaesthesia monitoring for birds (Altman 1998; Flammer
1998). However, despite the advances in avian veterinary
medicine and the availability of veterinarians specialising in
avian care and treatment, only 11.7% of bird-owning house-
holds currently seek veterinary advice for their birds
(American Veterinary Medical Association 2002).
There are a number of viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic
diseases that pet birds can become infected with but viral
infection is one of the major causes of mortality in parrots
(Ritchie et al 2000). The four most common viral infections
infecting pet parrots are avian polyomavirus, proventricular
dilatation disease (PDD), psittacine beak and feather
disease (PBFD), and Pacheco’s disease (Ritchie et al 2000).
There is no cure for avian polyomavirus although there is a
reliable vaccine on the market, and there is no known cure
or vaccine for PBFD or PDD. Although a vaccine for
Pacheco’s disease (Psittimune
TM
, Biomune Company, 8906
Rosehill Road, Lenexa, KS 66215, USA) was registered by
the United States Department for Agriculture for use in pet
birds in 1990 (Center for Veterinary Biologics 2005), it is
not routinely used except in the face of an outbreak
(Romagnano 2003a). Some veterinarians have had success
in treating birds in early stages of the disease with
Acyclovir, an anti-herpesvirus agent (Ritchie 1997).
Avian chlamydiosis caused by Chlamydophila psittaci,
commonly known as psittacosis or ‘parrot fever’, is one of
the more common bacterial infections in birds and is trans-
mittable to humans (see Welfare of others below). Birds
with mild infection may be asymptomatic carriers and may
shed the disease for many months or years with no outward
sign of illness. The organism is shed in the faeces and nasal
discharge of infected birds, is resistant to drying and can
remain infectious for several months (Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention [CDC] 1998). Severely ill birds
exhibit clinical signs of diarrhoea, severe lethargy, weight
loss, poor feather condition, conjunctivitis, nasal discharge
© 2006 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
A review of parrots as companion animals 265
and anorexia (CDC 1998). There is no vaccine for C.
psittaci and it can be very difficult to diagnose and screen
for because infected birds may test negative for the disease
(CDC 1998). In birds, the condition is often fatal but veteri-
narians have had success in treating infected birds with
antibiotics.
Aspergillosis caused by the fungus Aspergillus is the most
common fungal infection in captive birds and can be acute
or chronic. The fungus is commonly found in nearly all
environments but typically only causes disease or illness in
birds whose immune system has already been compromised
by stress, malnutrition, poor husbandry (ie inadequate venti-
lation, mouldy food, etc) or previous injury to the respira-
tory system (Eifert et al 2003).
Birds with acute aspergillosis have severe difficulty in
breathing, loss of or decreased appetite, frequent drinking
and urination, and even sudden death (Kearns 2003). The
chronic form is more common and is difficult to diagnose.
As a result, the bird may not become symptomatic until the
disease is beyond cure. Once diagnosed, aspergillosis can
be treated with antifungal drugs and surgery may be
performed to remove lesions but the prognosis is often
mixed (Kearns 2003).
Freedom from physical and thermal discomfort
These criteria essentially require that the animal is provided
with an environment that protects him or her from physical
injury or weather extremes that could lead to considerable
discomfort or illness. In order for this freedom to be met, the
physical and environmental needs of the animal must be
known and the caretaker must be capable of providing those
needs (Schuppli & Fraser 2000).
Like mammals, birds are warm-blooded and, as such, are
capable of regulating their own body temperature within a
reasonable range. The feathers serve a function similar to
that served by fur on many mammal species. Although it is
advised that caretakers avoid extreme temperature changes
and draughts (McCluggage & Higdon 1999), the require-
ments for accommodating the thermal needs of birds are
relatively simple and not dissimilar from the requirements
for keeping cats, dogs or small mammals such as guinea
pigs or hamsters.
In the US pet parrots are typically housed in cages.
Confinement to the cage protects the bird from incurring
physical injury from predators, including household dogs
and cats, or from other household hazards such as flying
into windows or chewing electrical cords. Even if, as
discussed above, the diet provided is a nutritionally inade-
quate all-seed diet, if provided in ample quantity and with
ample water, captive birds are generally free from the
physical discomfort of hunger and thirst. At first glance, it
appears that captive birds experience less discomforts than
their wild counterparts which must dodge predators, endure
inclement weather and search daily for food and water.
However, Graham (1998) reported that, despite the
seemingly care-free life of a caged bird, necropsies of pet
birds often reveal evidence of “a life beset with stress”, in
the form of stress-related lesions in birds submitted for
post mortem examination.
Graham (1998) postulated that the stress seen in captive
birds may be due in part to physical and behavioural restric-
tions imposed by standard captive environments. He wrote
“It would seem that the ideal enclosure for a captive bird is
one of such size and equipped with such internal furnishings
that the bird would have no awareness of its captivity.
Anything less is a compromise and acceptance, on the part
of the keeper, that the kept may or will be subject to the
stresses imposed by a lesser or greater degree of restriction
of its normal behaviours”.
Graham’s recommendations for an optimal captive environ-
ment seem to exceed the means of the average private
owner. Although cage sizes do vary, a cage is typically
considered adequate if the bird’s extended wing-span and
length of tail can be freely accommodated within the cage
(Graham 1998). As birds do survive and even reproduce in
such enclosures it is generally accepted as adequate housing
for pet birds. However, survival and successful breeding
alone do not indicate whether welfare is good, as many
animals are successfully bred under captive conditions that
are found to have severe welfare problems (Fraser & Broom
1990).
Freedom from fear, distress and other negative
psychological states and freedom to carry out
most normal forms of behaviour
In order to meet the fourth freedom, ‘Freedom from fear,
distress and other negative psychological states’, animals
must be housed and treated in a manner that avoids mental
suffering. The determination of mental suffering in animals
is difficult; however, some mental distresses are manifested
physically, such as the stress lesions described by Graham
(1998), self mutilation or other outward displays of
abnormal or stereotypic behaviour.
The distinction between normal and abnormal behaviour is
complicated because some behaviour designated as
‘abnormal’ in captive animals is actually derived from
normal behaviour that fails to serve a practical function in a
captive situation. The freedom to express normal behaviour
and freedom from distress appear to be inextricably linked
in captive parrots and other birds kept as pets (Sargent &
Keiper 1967; Keiper 1969; King 1993, Graham 1998; van
Hoek & ten Cate 1998; King 2000; Garner et al 2003b;
Meehan et al 2003a, 2004; Meehan et al 2003b). For this
reason I will consider the last two freedoms concomitantly.
If an individual animal is having difficulty in coping with its
environment, or is failing to cope, then its welfare is poor
but if strongly preferred resources and opportunities for
behaviour are available, and normal behaviour can be
shown, then good welfare is indicated (Broom 1996). The
evaluation of welfare should attempt to encompass the
psychological aspects of subjective feelings (Broom 1996;
Duncan 1996). Although parrot caretakers frequently
describe their parrots as feeling ‘happy’, ‘sad’ or
‘depressed’, these emotional states are difficult to measure
Animal Welfare 2006, 15: 263-276
266 Engebretson
empirically and, as such, this discussion will focus on the
physically expressed behaviours that are indicative of
welfare states.
Parrots are exceptionally social birds. In the wild, parrots
typically travel in large flocks, flying miles each day in
search of a wide variety of food and may congregate into a
nightly roost of hundreds or even thousands of social
conspecifics (Gilardi & Munn 1998). Stamps et al (1990)
postulated that the formation and maintenance of social
relationships within a flock may be as critical for survival as
predator avoidance and foraging efficiency and Birchall
(1990) reported that wild parrots may use 90% of their time
foraging for food and preening their partners.
Schuppli and Fraser (2000) explained that ethical objections
to keeping a companion animal arise if benefits to the owner
are achieved to the detriment of the animal. They contended
that “keeping a particular species might lead to suffering if
the animals are prevented from carrying out an important
element of their natural behaviour...”. Birds are routinely
denied two of their most fundamental natural behaviours:
flying and socialisation. It has been suggested that the
denial of these activities can cause both physical (Graham
1998) and behavioural abnormalities in captive parrots (van
Hoek & ten Cate 1998; Garner et al 2003b; Meehan et al
2003a, 2004; Meehan et al 2003b). Parrots kept as pets are
often housed alone or in pairs in small cages incapable of
accommodating flight (van Hoek & ten Cate 1998). Even
when not confined to cages pet parrots are commonly phys-
ically disabled through one of several deflighting proce-
dures to restrict or prevent flight (Hesterman et al 2001).
There are several methods of deflighting including
‘pinioning’, the surgical removal of the distal wing portion,
and ‘tenonectomy’, the surgical cutting and cauterisation of
the main wing tendon preventing extension of the wing
(Hesterman et al 2001). The most common form of
deflighting in captive birds kept as pets is ‘wing clipping’
which is a relatively simple technique that typically
involves the non-surgical unilateral cutting of the primary
(flight) feathers. This deflighting procedure is temporary
and birds regain their flying ability following the natural
moult and re-growth of feathers within a year to 18 months.
Hesterman et al (2001) examined the welfare implications
of various deflighting procedures on captive birds and
pointed out that, although deflighting limits or denies the
bird the ability to express the normal behaviour of flight, it
can allow them to express other behaviours (climbing,
exploring, socialisation with human caretakers) that would
otherwise be suppressed if confined to a cage.
However, deflighting does not guarantee better welfare.
Flight provides cardiovascular exercise beneficial to health
and allows birds to escape swiftly from predators including
household cats and dogs, and prevents birds from incurring
injury when falling from high perches; wing clipping may
also initiate feather-plucking behaviour in some parrots
(Forbes & Glendell 1999; Hesterman et al 2001). Some
behaviourists and veterinarians are now recommending
against wing clipping for the physical and psychological
well-being of the bird and encourage the use of basic
obedience training to assist in the control of flighted birds
(Forbes & Glendell 1999; McCluggage & Higdon 1999).
Whether or not wing clipping benefits a bird’s overall
welfare in captivity may be irrelevant to the question of
whether the birds make suitable pets. Perhaps a more
relevant question is whether it is acceptable to keep a partic-
ular animal in captivity as a companion animal if ensuring
his or her safety or compatibility in the home requires that
he or she be physically disabled.
Companion dogs and cats undergo routine physical alter-
ations such as spaying or neutering, declawing for cats, and
tail docking and ear cropping in dogs. Although the latter
three procedures are controversial, spaying and neutering
are generally viewed as beneficial and acceptable physical
alterations and none of these procedures interrupts the
animals’ natural primary mode of locomotion.
Although spaying or neutering is a physical alteration that
effectively disables an animal’s reproductive ability, the
process of spaying or neutering also reduces and in some
cases eliminates reproductive behaviour due to changes in
hormonal activity that accompany the physical removal of
the reproductive organs, leading to an assumption that the
‘desire’ to engage in such behaviour is reduced or elimi-
nated. The welfare of the progeny of the reproductively
intact animal can also be weighed against any potential
welfare benefits of allowing reproductive behaviour in
companion animals.
It is unknown whether deflighting a bird reduces or elimi-
nates his or her natural instinct or ‘desire’ to fly. However,
deflighted birds who regain their physical ability to fly
usually attempt flight suggesting that deflighting alters the
bird’s ability to fly but not necessarily his or her interest in
doing so.
Abnormal behaviour and stereotypies in captive
parrots
Knowledge of the biological functioning of parrots and the
systems used by them to cope with adversity can be useful
in the selection and interpretation of welfare indicators. The
extent to which animals are positively or negatively affected
by their captive environments is likely to also depend on
their cognitive abilities (Held et al 2001). Parrots have been
shown to have high-level cognitive abilities (Pepperberg
1999, 2004) and have been likened to primates and human
toddlers in terms of their intelligence and psychological and
social needs (Birchall 1990; Davis 1998). These capabilities
may be an important factor in the apparent high suscepti-
bility of parrots to developing abnormal behaviour in
captivity (Birchall 1990).
Stereotypies are abnormal, repetitive, unvarying and func-
tionless behaviours that are often performed by captive and
domesticated animals housed in barren or restricted envi-
ronments and are mostly absent in the wild, and are rela-
tively infrequent in large, environmentally enriched
enclosures (Field & Thomas 2000; Garner et al 2003a).
Stereotypic behaviour is often considered an indicator of
© 2006 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
A review of parrots as companion animals 267
poor welfare (Mason 1991; Broom 1996). With the
exception of poultry, there have been few systematic scien-
tific studies of stereotypic behaviour in captive birds kept as
pets (van Hoek & ten Cate 1998, Seibert et al 2004).
Three studies of stereotypic behaviour in laboratory caged
Passeriformes commonly known as ‘songbirds’ described
two common repetitive stereotypies in caged birds: spot
picking and route tracing in caged canaries (Serinus
canarius [Sargent & Keiper 1967; Keiper 1969] and route
tracing in blue and marsh tits (Parus caeruleus and P.
paulstris [Garner et al 2003a]).
In spot picking a bird will repeatedly touch the tip or side of
the bill to a particular spot —either an object or a body part.
In route tracing a bird will follow a precise and invariable
route within its cage. This behaviour is similar to the
‘pacing’ often seen in caged mammals (Sargent & Keiper
1967). Stereotypy levels were significantly reduced in
canaries which were provided with opportunity for social
interaction with other canaries but interaction with another
species had no effect (Sargent & Keiper 1967), suggesting
that deprivation of social interaction with the same species
can contribute to or cause poor welfare. Keiper (1969)
revealed an association between spot picking and captive
feeding conditions, suggesting that the behaviour is frus-
trated natural foraging behaviour. Canaries which were
forced to work for food compared to those who had free
access to food also showed a reduction in spot-picking
behaviour. Route tracing was linked to the size of the
enclosure with a significant reduction in the behaviour
achieved when birds were housed in an aviary. Interestingly,
the housing of birds in flight cages, which were more than
twice the size of standard cages, did not significantly reduce
route-tracing behaviour (Keiper 1969).
The recent studies of Meehan et al (2003a, 2004 and 2003b)
and Garner et al (2003b) have examined the causes of
stereotypies specifically in captive parrots. Garner et al
(2003b) found that stereotypy in captive orange-wing
Amazon parrots (Amazona amazonica) was correlated with
poor performance on the same psychiatric task (the
‘gambling task’) as stereotypy in autistic and schizophrenic
human patients suggesting “potential psychological distress
in animals showing these behaviours”. Similarly, Bordnick
et al (1994) compared feather-picking behaviour in parrots
to compulsive and impulsive human disorders such as
trichotillomania — an impulse control disorder in humans
characterised by the removal of hair resulting in noticeable
bald patches. Feather plucking has also been compared to
the commonly reported obsessive-compulsive hand-
washing behaviour in humans (Seibert et al 2004).
Meehan et al (2003a, 2004) showed that environmental
enrichment, appropriate foraging substrates and increased
physical complexity significantly reduced the development
and performance of oral (feather-picking) and/or locomotor
stereotypies in parrots. Meehan et al (2003a) found that
birds caged in isosexual pair housing positively affected the
welfare of captive parrots by eliminating the development
of stereotypy without jeopardizing the ability of parrots to
relate positively with humans. This finding stands in
contrast to ‘popular’ literature on parrot care which recom-
mends that pet parrots not be pair housed under the assump-
tion that the birds will form emotional bonds to each other
rather than to the human caretaker, thereby making them
less desirable as pets (Blanchard 1999).
It is also important to note that in the research design of
Meehan et al (2003b) and Meehan et al (2004) singly
housed birds were caged directly across from one another
and were housed within the same building structure; as such
the singly housed parrots had visual contact with at least
one other parrot of the same species and had vocal contact
with several others (Meehan et al 2003b; Meehan et al
2004). This is in contrast to the condition in which many
captive parrots are kept — without any visual or vocal
contact with members of their own species. Thus, further
studies would be required to determine the impact of total
isolation from social conspecifics on the development of
stereotypy in caged parrots to accurately reflect conditions
under which pet parrots are typically housed.
The combined results of the studies on stereotypic
behaviour in captive birds (both songbirds and parrots)
suggest that the development of locomotor stereotypy (eg
route tracing, pacing) is related to lack of space and physical
complexity, and that oral stereotypy (eg feather picking, bar
chewing) is related to lack of opportunity to perform
foraging behaviour. Lack of social interaction with the same
species appears to contribute to the development of both
oral and locomotor stereotypy (Sargent & Keiper 1967;
Keiper 1969; Meehan et al 2003a, 2004; Meehan et al
2003b).
Although the studies also suggest that changes in the
captive environment (cage size, enrichment, socialisation)
can improve the welfare of captive parrots, such changes
require that the owner has sufficient knowledge, resources
and motivation to fulfil these requisites and that the motiva-
tion to provide such complex care regimes is sustained
throughout the life of the animal. Schuppli and Fraser
(2000) explained that “Animal welfare may also be jeopar-
dised if the owner loses interest in, or commitment to, the
animal” and that “consistent care may also be jeopardised if
animals are very long lived. For example parrots in captivity
can live 30–80 years (Forshaw 1973) as do many primates;
such pets may outlive their owners, or the owners may lose
the interest or ability to provide care, with the result that the
animal is put into a shelter or is passed through a series of
owners”. Field and Thomas (2000) noted that even in zoo
situations where caretakers are paid to provide care for
parrots and enrichment is well recognised as an integral part
of captive bird husbandry, enrichment is the first task to be
dismissed when time and/or staff shortages occur.
If consistent and high-quality care cannot be guaranteed in
a professional zoological setting it is difficult to imagine
how consistent high-quality care can be reasonably
expected from the general public. Indeed, evidence suggests
that many parrots kept as companion animals are not
receiving optimal care. In 1998 the World Parrot Trust
Animal Welfare 2006, 15: 263-276
268 Engebretson
stated that perhaps as many as 50% of all companion parrots
were kept in cramped and inadequate conditions. This
statistic supports the assertion of Davis (1998) that
“although birds are intelligent and highly responsive to, and
aware of their surroundings, their treatment seldom reflects
this fact”.
Proper care can be enforced legally if federal or state laws
are written in such a way as to specifically describe
standards of care and to require that those standards be met
in order to possess a certain animal. Standards of care for
captive birds are almost non-existent and, if they do exist,
often require only minimum care such as requiring that the
cage be wide enough in at least one direction to accommo-
date completely stretched wings (Animal Protection
Institute 2005). Therefore, providing the care needed to
avoid the development of stereotypic behaviour in captive
birds is entirely voluntary on behalf of the possessor who
may not even be aware of the need.
Relinquishment
Lack of interest in or commitment to providing specialised
care for a long-lived species may also contribute to pet birds
being acquired and resold, given away or abandoned at
some time in their lives. There are currently more than 100
self-described bird rescue facilities in the US and several
shelters, especially in metropolitan areas, have reported an
increase in the number of relinquished birds in recent years.
In addition, sightings of free-flying parrots and established
flocks suggest that, in addition to accidental escapes, some
pet birds may be intentionally set free when their caretakers
tire of them. The number of birds released each year and
exact estimates of naturalised parrot populations are
unknown (Mabb 2002).
Clubb (1998) explained that “many birds are given up
within a few years of being brought into their owner’s
homes” and noted that “in many cases, owners simply do
not have accurate expectations when they purchase parrots
or have not been properly educated and made aware of
normal psittacine behaviour”. Kid and Kid (1998) reported
that “Noisiness is the second (after messiness) most
common complaint of parrot owners” and Meehan et al
(2003b) noted that “incessant screaming is one of the
precipitating factors for parrot neglect and abuse”.
Procurement and transportation
The final question in evaluating the welfare of the animal
under the Schuppli and Fraser (2000) check list of
companion animal suitability is whether or not there is any
appreciable risk of suffering, injury, illness or death arising
from procurement and/or transportation of a species for the
pet trade. Pet parrots may be wild-caught or captive bred.
Each of these procurement methods has different welfare
implications and, therefore, will be discussed separately.
Wild-capture
Although the 1992 US Wild Bird Conservation Act
(WBCA) prohibited imports of wild parrots and reduced the
US from the largest importer of birds to one of the smallest,
an unknown number of wild-caught birds are illegally
imported over the US–Mexico border each year (Michels
2002). Parrots are also legally and illegally traded within
their countries of origin and are legally imported or
smuggled into the European Union and throughout Asia.
The high mortality rates, inconsistent and insufficient laws,
and millions of birds of different species involved in the
trade mean that it is impossible to determine the exact
number of wild-caught birds traded (Knights & Currey
1990).
Adult or juvenile parrots may be captured by large nets
sprung when parrot flocks congregate on the ground near a
water or food source (May & Hovetter 2002) or may be
snared in trees with fishing line traps (Riupassa personal
communication 2001) whereas others may be netted at nest
cavity entrances (Bucher et al 1992). Neonatal birds are
taken directly from nests either by scaling the trees and
reaching into the nest cavity or by felling the tree and
cutting into the nest cavity to remove the young birds
(Bucher et al 1992).
There are substantial risks inherent in any live capture of
wild animals. Physical deterioration as a result of stress or
capture myopathy — a syndrome characterised by severe
and often fatal degeneration of skeletal muscle —has been
observed in a wide variety of mammalian and avian species
associated with capture and handling (Wobeser 1994). Birds
are especially fragile. Climatic changes and stress during
transport can cause significant mortality even when
imported legally (Knights & Currey 1990). Nicaraguan
researchers estimate that, in order to compensate for mortal-
ities, up to four times as many parrots are captured than
make it to market (Michels 2002). Wright et al (2001) found
that mortality rates from poaching were significantly greater
than mortality due to natural causes.
Domestic production
After the passage of the WBCA dramatically reduced the
supply of wild-caught birds for the pet trade in the US,
attention focused on domestic production. The appearance
of hand-raised baby parrots in the pet market increased the
popularity of keeping parrots as pets (Wilson 1998) in part
because the neonatal and juvenile stage is a time when the
‘pet quality’ of captive parrots is considered the highest
(Clubb 1998).
To meet the demand for pet birds many species of parrots,
especially budgerigars, cockatiels, lovebirds and small
conures, are mass-produced for the pet trade (Vriends 1996;
Low 2000; Blanchard 2001). As illustrated in Vriends
(1996) and described in the experimental design in Millam
et al (1995), modern breeding facilities typically house
parrots indoors in individual paired breeding cages
furnished with one or two perches, food and water recepta-
cles, and a nesting box. Despite the design similarities to
‘puppy mills’, bird production facilities or ‘bird mills’ have
not been met with the same scrutiny from the animal
welfare community and the general public. This may be due
to the familiarity of seeing birds confined to cages although
there is no empirical evidence that suggests that the welfare
© 2006 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
A review of parrots as companion animals 269
of caged breeding dogs is lower than the welfare of caged
breeding parrots.
Some parrots produced for the pet trade are bred in free-
flight colony aviary situations that allow opportunity for
free mate selection, social interaction and physical activity,
including flight. Although this situation has obvious welfare
advantages it offers less control over the breeding process,
less access to young for hand-raising purposes, and may be
cost and space prohibitive for some breeders.
There currently exist no legal standards governing bird
production facilities whether bred commercially or for
research purposes. The US Animal Welfare Act (AWA) —
legislation passed in 1966 —extends protection to certain
warm-blooded animals maintained by certain animal
dealers, transporters, exhibitors and research facilities.
Birds were excluded from the AWAuntil 2000 but standards
for regulating breeding facilities are still in development
and birds housed and used for research purposes will not be
covered. Ironically, the very parrots used at universities to
study parrot welfare will not be covered by the AWA.
According to unpublished data cited in Meehan et al (2004),
96% of the orange-wing Amazon parrots in the research
resource colony at the University of California at Davis
perform locomotor and/or oral stereotypies.
In order to produce hand-raised parrots, chicks are typically
removed from parents shortly after hatching (in some cases
eggs are removed from the nest and hatched in an
incubator). Unweaned chicks are fed a liquefied or semi-
liquefied diet by oral gavage and maintained in thermally
controlled brooders until they have sufficient feathers to
maintain their own body temperature (Vriends 1996).
Although ‘popular literature’ suggests that hand-raised
parrots make superior pets to parent-reared parrots
(Blanchard1999), hand-rearing has the potential to produce
physical as well as behavioural problems in parrots
(Harcourt-Brown 2004). There are many risks involved in
the hand-feeding of young parrot chicks especially if the
feeder is inexperienced in hand-feeding techniques (Harris
1997). Problems associated with improper hand-feeding
include: aspiration pneumonia, which results from food
inhaled into the lungs of the bird; burned or punctured
crops, which result from forceful feeding or feeding formula
that is too hot; and malnutrition and starvation, which result
from feeding food of inadequate nutritional value or inade-
quate amounts (Romagnano 2003b). As there is no formal
veterinary reporting system to track the incidence of hand-
feeding injuries and as some injuries may go untreated by
the owner, it is impossible to determine the frequency of
such injuries.
A recent study by Harcourt-Brown (2003) found that 44%
of hand-reared African grey parrots (Psittacus e. erithacus)
suffered from a condition known as osteodystrophy, defined
as a failure of the normal development of bone. The clinical
signs of this condition are distortion and enlargement of the
bones, susceptibility to fracture, and abnormal posture and
gait (Blood & Studdert 1988). Further studies by Harcourt-
Brown (2004) suggested that premature physical activity in
hand-reared chicks my exacerbate the effects of a deficient
diet and contribute to skeletal deformity. Parent-reared
chicks are naturally confined to the nest and receive skeletal
support from huddling with siblings (Harcourt-Brown
2004). Hand-fed birds are typically removed from the nest
during feeding and allowed to run around during and after
the feeding thus incurring more physical exercise and more
stress on their growing bones. Limiting movement until
bone growth is complete may reduce the incidence of bone
deformities in hand-raised parrot chicks (Harcourt-Brown
2004).
It has also been suggested in recent years that hand-rearing
can influence the later development of aberrant behaviours,
such as stereotypy, feather plucking and phobic behaviour
(Lightfoot 2002). Studies suggest that in animals with
highly dependant young, parental care influences behaviour
development after nutritional independence and results in
better welfare (Nimon & Broom 1999). Recent research
also suggests that parent-reared chicks that are handled
regularly by humans exhibit tameness without the psycho-
logical or physical risks of hand-rearing (Aengus & Millam
1999; Collette et al 2000). Aengus and Millam (1999) noted
that although continued handling of parent-reared chicks
would probably be necessary to maintain tameness,
“neonatal handling of parent-raised parrots provides a low
labor and low technology alternative to artificial rearing as
a means of initially taming birds, thereby improving their
adaptation to life in captivity”.
The potential for physical injury in hand-fed birds can be
reduced if human caretakers are adequately trained and
skilled in hand-feeding techniques. In recognition of this,
the Association of Avian Veterinarians’ (AAV) position
paper on the sale of unweaned birds specifies that the organ-
isation “SUPPORTS the conveyance of unweaned birds
between qualified parties who possess the necessary skills
of handfeeding in accordance with accepted avicultural
industry practices” and “OPPOSES the sale or transfer of
unweaned birds to individuals KNOWN not to possess the
necessary level of experience in accordance with accepted
avicultural industry practices [emphasis theirs]”. Although
position statements such as these are important in that they
recognise potential problems and can raise awareness
among the avian veterinary community, the effect of veteri-
nary position statements on the sale practices of bird
breeders and pet shop owners is unknown.
As hand-feeding is a labour-intensive procedure there is an
economic advantage to selling unweaned birds quickly,
thereby ensuring the sale and effectively shifting the hand-
feeding burden to the purchaser. Compliance with the AAV
position statement also requires that the seller has adequate
knowledge of the risks involved in hand-feeding and has the
ability to assess the skill level of the purchaser. The seller
must also be willing to risk losing a sale or incurring the
prolonged cost of caring for the unweaned bird if the sale is
delayed or refused.
Although 15 states prohibit the sale of some unweaned
animals most limit the restriction to puppies and kittens
Animal Welfare 2006, 15: 263-276
270 Engebretson
under the age of 8 weeks (some states also prohibit the sale
of rabbits, chicks [chickens] and ducks under a certain age).
California recently became the first state to regulate the sale
of unweaned birds in retail venues. The new law requires
that hand-fed birds be weaned prior to removal from the
retail venue, including pet shops, bird marts and swap
meets. The law further requires that pet shops that house
unweaned birds employ one or two individuals who have
completed the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s hand-
feeding certification course. The bill was drafted and
sponsored by the Animal Protection Institute.
Welfare of others
There is no doubt that many people enjoy parrots as
companion animals and are attracted to parrots for various
reasons including companionship, entertainment, their
‘personality’, and their intelligence and vocal ability
(Laughlin & Dowrick 1987; Kid & Kid 1998). Like other
commonly kept companion animals, pet parrots may fill
some social, esteem and cognitive needs of their human
caretakers (Laughlin & Dowrick 1987; Kid & Kid 1998).
Schuppli and Fraser (2000) explained that “species may be
ill-suited as companion animals simply because they have
qualities that may detract from, or fail to enhance, the
welfare of the owner”. Examples include risk of physical
injury inflicted on the owner or others by the animal or
exposure and transmission of zoonotic diseases that may
have an impact on people, domestic animals or wildlife.
Risk of physical injury and disease transmission
Parrots of all species can inflict painful bites capable of
breaking the skin and leaving scar tissue. Larger birds such
as macaws and cockatoos are capable of inflicting serious
flesh wounds capable of leaving permanent disfigurement.
Biting is part of a parrot’s natural behaviour used to
establish dominance within a flock, to defend territory, or in
response to frustration, fear, sexual aggression, or play
(Athan 1993). Nearly every parrot will experiment with
biting his or her human caretaker; the behaviour can be rein-
forced or discouraged depending on the knowledge and
reaction of the caretaker. Aggressive behaviour in many
species of parrots accompanies sexual maturity and attacks
may be spontaneous or may be accompanied by subtle
warning signs that can be difficult to detect by the inexperi-
enced observer (Athan 1993). Although sexual aggression is
reduced or eliminated in mammalian species kept as
companions through the routine procedure of spaying and
neutering no equivalent procedure currently exists for pet
birds (Clubb 1998). Clubb (1998) noted that the adult repro-
ductive stage is the longest life stage of a parrot and that
“sexual maturity and resultant behavioural changes are
inevitable in pet birds. Bonding (pair formation) with a
single person, displaced aggression, sexual frustration, and
destructive behaviour are among behavioural changes that
many render birds undesirable companions”.
There are many books available written by lay behaviourists
describing behaviour modification techniques that can be
applied with varying levels of success to help maintain pet
quality during the long sexually reproductive life stage of
parrots (Clubb 1998). Avian behavioural consultants are
also available in some areas to assist parrot caretakers in
addressing the behavioural problems that accompany sexual
maturity.
Disease transmission
Avian chlamydiosis (C. psittaci), commonly known as psit-
tacosis or ‘parrot fever’, can be transmitted through the air
from birds to humans. Although psittacosis has the potential
to infect any bird species it is particularly common in
parrots, pigeons and doves (Flammer 1997). The vast
majority of cases reported to the Centers for Disease
Control (between 30 and 100 cases per year) result from
exposure to pet birds (CDC 1998). Psittacosis can cause
significant illness, especially for people with compromised
immune systems, but most persons respond to oral anti-
bacterial treatments (CDC 1998). Considering that millions
of birds are kept as pets the incidence of this disease in
humans is quite low. The risks to the non-bird-owning
community are also quite low unless infected birds, which
can be asymptomatic carriers for many years and intermit-
tently shed the bacteria, are housed for public display or
sale.
The importation of wild-caught birds significantly increases
the disease risks associated with the pet bird trade. The
mixing of birds from different geographical ranges coupled
with close confinement and highly stressful conditions
increases the susceptibility of imported birds to infectious
organisms.
Pearson et al (1975) found in birds tested in US quarantine
prior to the passage of the WBCA that 25% of groups of
birds tested positive for Exotic Newcastle Disease (END).
Parrots represented over 75% of the positive individuals.
According to F Dustan Clark, Extension Poultry Health
Veterinarian at the University of Arkansas’s Avian Advice,
eradication costs associated with exotic poultry disease
outbreaks in the US typically cost about $1 million per day
of the outbreak (Clark 2003).
Schuppli and Fraser (2000) also noted that “offensive
qualities of animals (noise, odour, unruly or destructive
behaviour) may also be undesirable to owners — and
possibly other members of the community”. As discussed
above, many people eventually seek to rid themselves of the
responsibility of caring for their parrots (see
‘Relinquishment’). The behavioural changes that
accompany developmental stages in the lives of parrots are
often cited as a primary challenge to the human-parrot rela-
tionship (Wilson 1998; Clubb 1998). Wilson (1998) noted
that “Under the best of circumstances, parrots are difficult
creatures to live with, and few people will actually enjoy
long-term cohabitation with them”.
Welfare of the environment
Schuppli and Fraser’s (2000) final consideration in
assessing the suitability of companion animals addresses
environmental impacts. Issues to consider in this section
include: ecological impacts if the animal escapes or is
© 2006 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
A review of parrots as companion animals 271
released, adequate trade and collection regulation for
species that exist in the wild, risks of wild-capture on native
populations or ecosystems, and whether or not such risks
can be addressed by captive breeding (Schuppli & Fraser
2000). I will examine each of these issues in turn.
Ecological impacts of released or escaped parrots
Released or escaped pet parrots can establish naturalised
1
colonies and it is feared that some could become harmfully
invasive pest species adversely impacting native wildlife
and/or agriculture (Fisk & Crabtree 1974; Shelgren et al
1975). At least 74 free-living exotic parrot species have
been reported in North America and at least 19 species have
nested in Florida and southern California (Jackson 2003).
There is considerable debate about the current and/or
potential impacts of naturalised parrots on native wildlife
species among scientists, aviculturists, birders, environmen-
talists and animal advocates (Engebretson 2004). However,
further research is needed to provide relevant information
on this topic, followed by further discussion about appro-
priate measures to mitigate any identified impacts.
Risks of wild capture on parrot populations
Nearly one-third of the world’s approximately 330 extant
parrot species are threatened with extinction due to the
combined forces of habitat destruction and continued
collection for the pet trade (Collar & Juniper 1992). The
trade in wild parrots seems to be driven by market demand
coupled with the large profits to the pet industry and the
poverty in many rural areas in many countries with wild-
parrot populations (Wright et al 2001).
Perhaps the single most effective tool against organised
poaching, wildlife smuggling and over-utilisation of
wildlife is the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
CITES was first signed into law in 1973 in order to protect
certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-
exploitation through commercial trade. The US adopted the
treaty in 1975 and the Endangered Species Act is its
enabling legislation. Under CITES, the trade in live or dead
wildlife and their body parts is restricted or even prohibited
for species listed in CITES’ three appendices, which are
based on the level of endangerment of species. Trade in
species threatened with extinction is prohibited under
Appendix I and monitored to varying degrees under the
other two Appendices. Specifically, CITES prohibits the
import of Appendix I species for ‘commercial purposes’
unless the animal was specifically bred in captivity for that
purpose.
The US WBCAof 1992 provides further protections to wild
birds traditionally imported as companion animals for
Americans. Congress found that the international pet trade
in wild-caught exotic birds contributes greatly to the decline
of species in the wild, and also that the trade produces an
unacceptably high rate of mortality among the imported
animals. The Act requires documentation by the importer on
the source of the bird, a complete description and the
reasons for import. Also, the importer is permitted to import
only two exotic birds as companion animals per year. The
Department of the Interior administers the Act through the
Fish and Wildlife Service. Wright et al (2001) revealed that
the WBCA cut poaching rates from almost 50% to 20%,
refuting the claims of some aviculturists (Desborough 1996)
that limiting legal trade intensifies illegal trade and
poaching (Wright et al 2001).
Although the concept of a legal trade in parrots managed
under a ‘sustainable harvest’ regime has been suggested as
a potential conservation approach (Snyder et al 2000;
Beissinger 2001) and is in fact specifically listed as an
exception under the WBCA, to date no successful sustain-
able harvest project has been demonstrated (Snyder et al
2000). In 2003, however, Argentina submitted a sustainable
harvest proposal to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the
hope of exporting wild-caught blue-fronted Amazons
(Amazona aestiva) harvested through the programme. The
decision on the permit is still pending and has been opposed
by 93 scientists with expertise in parrot biology and by
numerous animal welfare organisations concerned that the
trade will be unsustainable and/or will compromise the
welfare of individual parrots.
Sustainable harvest seems to hold little promise as an
effective conservation tool. There is a documented relation-
ship between legal and illegal international trade with the
legal trade providing a smokescreen behind which poachers
operate (Wright et al 2001). Currently there is no marking
system that could reliably distinguish legally collected birds
from illegally collected birds (Beissinger 2001). In the
absence of reliable marking systems and tight controls,
attempts at implementing sustainable harvest programmes
could actually increase conservation problems rather than
solve them (Beissinger 2001).
Despite the protections afforded by CITES and the WBCA,
the international and domestic bird trade continues to be a
major threat for many species (Collar & Juniper 1992).
Enforcement of international and local laws continues to be
a major conservation challenge especially in areas where
illegal practices are viewed as socially acceptable at the
local level (Snyder et al 2000).
Captive breeding
Captive breeding might have the potential to reduce
pressures on wild populations by reducing the profitability
of wild capture (Snyder et al 2000). However, the cost of
wild capture tends to be much less than captive breeding
(Snyder et al 2000). Indeed, the demand for and subsequent
collection of wild parrots for the global pet trade continues
to threaten wild parrots despite the ability to produce
captive-bred birds (Wright et al 2001). The yellow-headed
Amazon parrot, for example, has suffered the greatest
decline of any bird in the Americas — over 90% since the
Animal Welfare 2006, 15: 263-276
1
The term ‘naturalised’ is used in accordance with the terminolo-
gy outlined in Holmes and Stroud (1995) where ‘naturalised’ refers
to an established population of organisms that have not been
domesticated and ‘feral’ refers to an established population of
organisms that have been domesticated.
272 Engebretson
1970s, with the majority of the decline (68%) in the last
10 years (Michels 2002). This decline has continued despite
the wide availability of captive-reared yellow-headed
Amazons for pet purposes. It also unclear whether the avail-
ability of inexpensive captive-bred birds would result in
fewer birds being captured for the trade or would merely
result in a greater number of individuals acquiring birds as
pets with no real reduction in the total number of wild-
caught birds entering the pet trade.
One of the most common assertions made by private avicul-
turists and pet parrot owners is that captive breeding
contributes to conservation of the species (Clubb 1992;
Desborough 1996). In reality, breeding birds in captivity
contributes little or nothing to conservation efforts because
most captive breeding is done outside official species
survival plans or other directed conservation efforts
(Derrickson & Snyder 1992, Snyder et al 2000; Gilardi
2001; Wright et al 2001). Even if mutations are not specifi-
cally selected for, the moment the first generation is
produced (F1 generation) a breeder has been involved, to
one degree or another, in a process whereby ‘natural
selection’ no longer applies; thus the birds are diverging
from whatever they were (or are) in the wild. Invariably,
selection factors begin to shift from factors that enable a
bird to survive in the wild to factors that enable a bird to
survive in captivity so that the release of captive-bred birds
may reduce the fitness of wild populations (Derrickson &
Snyder 1992; Ford 2002).
It has been suggested that captive birds may support conser-
vation efforts by serving as ‘ambassadors’, thus generating
funds for conservation efforts (Gilardi 2001). There is a
lack, however, of behavioural research demonstrating an
association between viewing animals in a captive setting
and either knowledge about the animal or intention to take
action to conserve the animal in the wild. In The Modern
Ark (1997), Vicki Croke noted that zoo visitors spend on
average 3 min or less viewing each exhibit and typically do
not read informational signs, and McGovern (2002) noted
that although zoos around the world receive close to $10
billion annually in revenue, less than one-tenth of one
percent goes to conservation efforts. It is unclear what
factors inspire the public to support conservation efforts or
what impact such support has on the conservation of the
species in the wild. For example, despite a long history of
public display in zoos and travelling shows, tiger popula-
tions in the wild continue to dwindle, whereas blue, right
and humpback whales have received a high level of public
support for conservation efforts despite the fact that these
species have never been held in captivity.
Discussion and conclusions
The concept of companion animal ‘suitability’ as discussed
here takes into account animal welfare, ecological and
societal considerations, and holds implications for shaping
public opinion and creating public policy. This review has
examined the available scientific evidence relating to the
welfare of captive parrots and examined other variables
aimed at evaluating the suitability of parrots as companion
animals. In essence, Schuppli and Fraser (2000) outlined
that ethical objections to keeping a companion animal arise
if benefits to the owner are achieved to the detriment of the
animal, if the animal poses a heath or safety risk to the
owner or the community, or if the acquisition or possession
of a particular species poses a risk to the environment.
Many people enjoy keeping parrots as companion animals;
indeed, birds (including finches and canaries) are the fourth
most popularly kept companion animals in the US (Kid &
Kid 1998; Meyers 1998). Even when bred in captivity,
exotic parrots are not considered domesticated animals and,
as such, they retain the inherent behavioural and physical
needs of wild parrots (Davis 1998; Graham 1998).
However, enclosures and housing arrangements for captive
parrots held by private owners are typically designed for the
convenience of the possessor, not the needs of the animal
(Graham 1998; van Hoek & ten Cate 1998), and the restric-
tions imposed by the captive environment may significantly
reduce the ability of the animal to express natural behaviour
including socialisation, foraging behaviour and flight
(Sargent & Keiper 1967; Keiper 1969; Graham 1998). The
restriction of natural behaviour may lead to stereotypic
behaviour, an indication of poor welfare (Sargent & Keiper
1967; Keiper 1969; Mason 1991; King 1993; Broom 1996;
Graham 1998; van Hoek & ten Cate 1998; Garner et al
2003b; Meehan et al 2003a, 2004; Meehan et al 2003b).
Many natural parrot behaviours, especially those expressed
after sexual maturity, may lead to a reduction in benefits of
parrot ownership for the caretaker and a reduction in quality
of care provided to the bird, and/or abuse, abandonment or
relinquishment of the bird. The trade in parrots as pets nega-
tively impacts wild populations and jeopardises the welfare
of individual wild-caught birds (Snyder et al 2000; Wright
et al 2001; Michels 2002).
Schuppli and Fraser (2000) developed a classification
system of five categories based on the degree of suitability
of animal species as companion animals. Parrots were not
specifically mentioned or listed under any one category
described by the two authors. Based on the above evalua-
tion, parrots seem to fall between categories C and E, but do
not fit neatly into any one category.
At first glance it appears that parrots belong in category C,
which is described as follows: “Species that have complex
or demanding requirements needing skillful and knowl-
edgeable owners who are prepared to commit significant
time and/or resources to animal ownership, but where
ownership is unproblematic with regard to procurement,
transportation, and effects on the community and the envi-
ronment. Control of ownership (eg ownership by only
qualified persons) may be appropriate for such species”
(Schuppli & Fraser 2000).
However, the lack of species-specific dietary information
(Harrison 1998; Reid & Perlberg 1998), the tendency for
bird owners not to seek veterinary care (American
Veterinary Medical Association 2002) and the unknown
impact of released non-native parrots suggest that parrots
might belong to category D, defined as “Species where
© 2006 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare
A review of parrots as companion animals 273
there is insufficient knowledge (eg regarding procurement,
transportation, environmental impact or the animal’s needs)
to allow a confident assessment of its suitability as a
companion animal. Use of these species might be accept-
able in the future if knowledge becomes adequate and any
necessary safeguards are in place” (Schuppli & Fraser
2000).
Placing parrots in either category C or D, however, fails to
account for the considerable environmental impacts of the
wild bird trade, which are directly linked to the demand and
desire for parrots as pets. Considering the welfare of the
environment, most parrot species (particularly those whose
wild counterparts are still traded) would fall under category
E — “Species that are unsuitable as companion animals
because of undue harm or risk to one or more of: the animal,
the owner, the community, or the environment”. The authors
further explained that category E animals include “long-
lived species whose lifespan is likely to exceed an owner’s
ability to provide care” and “species whose requirements
(eg for normal social behaviour) cannot reasonably be met
in captivity” (Schuppli & Fraser 2000). As parrots are long-
lived, flight-adapted flock animals that have been compared
to primates and human toddlers in the needs of their social
and emotional lives, it may be argued that they fit the
criteria for being deemed a category E animal.
Unfortunately, retail pet shops typically sell parrots with
little or no screening or training of prospective caretakers
and place an emphasis on the sale of juveniles or unweaned
babies because a parrot’s ‘pet quality’ is highest prior to
reaching sexual maturity (Clubb 1998). Retail pet shops
appear to regard and treat parrots as category A or B
animals, categories assigned to mice and hamsters and dogs
and cats respectively by Schuppli and Fraser (2000).
In contrast, avian rescue organisations typically adopt out
adult birds and require that prospective adopters agree to an
application process complete with parrot care and behav-
ioural training courses, home inspections and follow-up
consultations prior to receiving a companion parrot. In
following such a protocol avian rescues are effectively
‘controlling the ownership’ of birds in their care by essen-
tially limiting ownership to ‘qualified’ caretakers, thus
following the recommendation set forth under Schuppli and
Fraser’s (2000) category C.
As behaviour and care requirements vary between species it
may be appropriate to evaluate each parrot species sepa-
rately or to divide parrot species into groups based on size;
small-sized parrots such as budgerigars (Melopsittacus
undulatus), cockatiels (Nymphicus hollandicus) and
lovebirds (Agapornis spp), medium-sized parrots such as
conures (Aratinga spp), Amazons (Amazona spp) and
African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus), and large-sized
parrots such as cockatoos (Cacatua spp) and macaws (Ara
spp). It is important to note, however, that although smaller
birds in general should be easier to care for in terms of
meeting environmental needs, the relatively low cost of
these species may mean that they are at an increased risk of
being purchased on impulse or as a child’s pet. Their lower
commercial value may also place them at a greater risk of
being considered ‘disposable’ when no longer wanted by a
caretaker or when necessary veterinary care exceeds the
retail value of the animal (Low 2000). Thus, smaller birds
may face different challenges in the pet trade but not neces-
sarily fewer challenges than their larger higher priced coun-
terparts.
Many animal advocates believe that regulation of the acqui-
sition, sale and relinquishment of animals kept as compan-
ions could improve animal welfare (Rollin & Rollin 2003),
especially for animals that require specialised care
(Schuppli & Fraser 2000). However, regulations protecting
captive birds from inappropriate care, acquisition and sales
are sorely lacking at the federal and state level (Animal
Protection Institute 2005).
In welfare assessments it is important to take account of
individual variation in response to situations or environ-
mental conditions (Broom 1996). Despite the difficulty of
care and potential for the development of stereotypic behav-
iours, aggression and injury, there appear to be some
parrot–human relationships in which both the caretaker and
the animal experience good welfare. It has also been
suggested that basic obedience training for parrots and their
caretakers can improve the welfare of captive parrots
(Glendell personal communication 2004) thereby increasing
an individual bird’s compatibility in a home environment.
Evidence suggests, however, that as long as the private
ownership of parrots remains socially acceptable and
commercial profits persist, the smuggling of parrots for the
pet trade will probably continue despite trade restrictions
and availability of captive bred birds (Snyder et al 2000).
Therefore, finding ways to replace the demand for parrots as
‘pets’ with a demand for preserving the species in the wild
may be the best way to reduce captive parrot welfare
problems and ensure the welfare of wild parrots and the
environment.
Acknowledgements
Many thanks to Karen Hirsch, Dena Jones, Barry Kent
MacKay, and Nicole Paquette for invaluable discussion on
this topic and for helpful comments on earlier versions of
this paper.
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